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‘In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life’

Any reader of my reviews will already know that I am consistently drawn to themed anthologies. I am also a huge fan of food, both of preparing and eating it. It was inevitable, then, that I would pick up In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, which brings together original pieces by many different authors. The gorgeously designed book has been released by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, and it looks to be part of a small series of anthologies on specific themes. I have already read and loved At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here), and hope to be able to pick up In the Garden very soon.

The book’s blurb declares that food ‘can embody our personal histories as well as wider cultural histories. But what are the stories we tell ourselves about the kitchen, and how do we first come to it?’ The collection aims to explore whether food, and the process of cooking, can be ‘a tool for connection’, both in the physical space of the kitchen, and in the wider world.

In the Kitchen features work from new-to-me authors, as well as those whom I have read and enjoyed before – Daisy Johnson, Ruby Tandoh, and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but three. There are thirteen essays in total, and each considers various aspects of cooking and eating, and ‘the possibilities and limitations the kitchen poses.’ Throughout, the authors discuss their experiences of cooking in a particular kitchen, or simply being present in one. Almost every essay is bound up with memories; they seem inextricable from the process of using the kitchen as an adult.

I love the way in which each of the included pieces are so very different. In ‘A Life in Cookers’, Rachel Roddy writes about the ovens which she has lived with, from ‘the heavyweight comforter’ of an Aga in her childhood home, to ‘a cream and green electric cooker with hot plates like liquorice whirls’ owned by her grandparents. On said cooker, her grandmother ‘boiled tongue for hours and made pan after pan of a minced beef and potato stew called tattie hash, the smell of which clung to the wallpaper like a pattern, along with worry and love.’ In Ella Risbridger’s essay, the author details the sensuality which often strike her when she is in the kitchen: ‘There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.’

In ‘The New Thing’, Juliet Annan – who taught herself to cook using often vague Penguin paperbacks – details some of the questionable menus which she made for friends in the late 1970s: ‘… October 14 is Whiting and Fennel Soup, followed by Stuffed Cabbage, followed by Apple Steamed Pudding; very heavy. It makes me wonder about central heating – did we not have any? – but even on a summer’s day I see the menu was: Lettuce and Hazelnut Soup, Spiced Chicken with Tomato Salad and New Potatoes and then Baked Alaska and Fruit Salad.’ Annan goes on to remark: ‘… I was cooking dinners like this at least twice a week: the suet pudding years, and I was turning into one.’

Daisy Johnson writes about rituals surrounding food, such as her family’s tradition of making pizzas from scratch on Christmas Eve. She says that this tradition is ‘older than I am and has changed as my siblings and I have grown.’ Johnson goes on to comment that writing about food is ‘almost impossible’, and difficult to capture: ‘I would like to write about the ritual of food. I would like to write about how food rituals grow and about the ones that I have grown with my family and friends. I would like to write about how these rituals have come about seemingly without discussion and are now almost impossible to break.’

In ‘Steam’, Nina Mingya Powles talks about the foods bound up with her Asian heritage, and the almost endless variations of the same dish which can be found from one country to another. She tells us, in her rich and careful prose: ‘My most treasured childhood foods are steamed: dumplings, bao, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, silky cheung fun. Somehow, steaming feels more alchemical than other ways of cooking.’ As with Powles, for many of these authors, food is deeply connected to their treasured memories, and to fostering a sense of community at different points in their lives. Powles captures this beautifully when she writes: ‘In the kitchen, memories live in the body, just under the skin and under the tongue. Scents and residues from childhood rub off on our hands.’

Rebecca Liu takes a different tack, exploring the recent phenomenon of recipe boxes in her essay. Laura Freeman ponders over the diets of famous writers; for example, Iris Murdoch’s ‘surprise pudding’, which she served to her friends, and which turned out to be ‘a single Mr Kipling cake’. Ruby Tandoh writes of Doreen Fernandez, who ‘travelled widely across many of the 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, documenting the ways in which multiple cultures (and multiple colonisers) have… often synthesised to create the diverse and endlessly inventive foods of the country.’ The essayists draw their inspiration from a wealth of different sources – films, literature, love affairs, or the country of origin of a former partner, for example.

The separate essays have been arranged into three sections, entitled ‘Coming to the Kitchen’, ‘Reading and Writing the Kitchen’, and ‘Beyond the Kitchen’. So many of the authors have been wonderfully inventive and, as I have demonstrated above, have gone in very different directions in what they have explored here. A loose structure, such as the one which the separate sections gives, is effective.

I found In the Kitchen both immersive, and highly entertaining. I was awed by the variety which it contained, and took something particular from every single piece. Every essay made me contemplate something, and – as well as making me feel very hungry! – connected me with a lot of memories in the various kitchens which I have known during my lifetime. I can only hope that Daunt Books expand this as-yet small collection, and in the meantime, I look forward to reading much more of the publishing house’s back catalogue.

If you are a self-confessed foodie, like I am, In the Kitchen will be an incredibly valuable addition to your reading life. I relish books like this, which push me in the directions of different cuisines which I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, recipes which I have not yet tried, and techniques which I have not explored in my cooking. I very much look forward to implementing everything which I have learnt from this excellent collection in my own kitchen.

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‘Love Lessons’ by Joan Wyndham ****

I had had my eye on Joan Wyndham’s Love Lessons: A Wartime Diary for quite some time, and borrowed a gloriously musty second edition copy from my local library. First published in 1985, at the urging of Wyndham’s daughter, these diaries, which span the first two years of the Second World War, begin in August 1939. At this point, she is a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in the capital, but it closes down just as war is declared. Along with its sequel, Love Is Blue, Love Lessons recounts Wyndham’s life during wartime.

At the outset of war, sixteen-year-old Wyndham lives with her mother and ‘her religious companion, the enigmatic Sid’. Her parents divorced when she was very young, and her father is a bristling, sometimes absent figure, in her life. Wyndham is described in the blurb as a ‘teenage Catholic virgin… [who] spent her days trying to remain pure and unsullied and her nights trying to stay alive.’ One critic rather memorably called its young author ‘a latterday Pepys in camiknickers’.

Wyndham is open in that she falls for people incredibly quickly. When she visits her local first-aid post for the war effort, she makes a friend, and comments on the 4th of September 1939: ‘At the moment, Laura and I are enjoying a gentle lesbianism of the mind, but I’m afraid it won’t last and soon I shall be in love with her properly.’ There are similar situations with various men, some of whom treat her very badly; many of them seem intent only upon taking her virginity.

Wyndham can be quite fickle, in the tradition of adolescents; she shifts admiration and adoration from one individual to another, and is often momentarily heartbroken between. She does impart wise comments upon her condition and position at times, though, and seems very aware of her own self. In April 1940, she writes: ‘What an extraordinary thing this love is that comes and goes, making a completely different person of you while it lasts… You have to be terribly careful when you are young.’

Nothing about this journal is typical, particularly given the time in which it was written, and I feel as though this account would probably shock a lot of her contemporaries in its frankness. From the very first, Love Lessons is wonderfully evocative, rather amusing, and quite risqué. In the first entry, for instance, Wyndham remarks: ‘Granny is a bit of a bore, always chasing me to wash my hands and wear a dress – but luckily she’s in bed a lot of the time, wearing a chin-strap and a little circle of tin pressed into the middle of her forehead to keep the wrinkles at bay – it’s hard work being an ageing beauty.’ She has a lot of affection for her Aunt Bunch, of whom she comments: ‘Mummy says she takes drugs and goes around with Negroes, but I don’t care.’

I found Wyndham’s entries immediately compelling, and her tone refreshing and quite modern. I was not expecting the explicit sexual content which crops up here from time to time, but it feels authentic to show just what a modern woman Wyndham was, and the shifting world in which she became an adult. She offers comments on everyone, and everything. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so frank from this period, and it certainly opened my eyes a little. As a teenager, she ‘strayed into London’s Bohemian set’, meeting rather eccentric characters at every turn. One of her friends from drama school has a ‘sugar daddy’, and becomes ‘the first of my friends to go over the edge’ by losing her virginity. Another friend, Prudey, ‘married a Greek don who seduced her in every field in Cambridge. He used to make noises like a wolf and got very enraged if she wouldn’t bleat. When she was unfaithful to him he was so amazed he had her put into a lunatic asylum, but she ran away to Greece and got herself three lovers.’

She and her friends discuss taboo subjects with regularity, and she seems to recount each of these episodes. In May 1940, she writes, for instance, of a married male acquaintance, Leonard: ‘I think he would have kissed me, but I gracefully freed myself and ran down the steps, because it’s rather embarrassing to kiss a man smaller than yourself standing up. I think I’m becoming the most awful bitch.’

Of the war, which is of course all around her, Wyndham writes of her confusion in May 1940: ‘I don’t seem to be able to react or to feel anything. I don’t know what’s real any more. I don’t think I’m real or that this life is real. Before this last winter everything seemed real, but since then I seem to have been dreaming.’ When the air raids in London become too much, her mother has her ‘evacuated’ to the Kent town of Tunbridge Wells, to stay with her aunt. Although Wyndham is only here for a couple of weeks in the end, when she is first sent away, she recounts her discontent: ‘This morning was zero hour – the place, the country, seemed unbearably remote, cut off from the warm stream of life.’

I had only read the first two weeks of entries in this book before requesting Love is Blue from the library. Throughout Love Lessons, Wyndham gives important commentary about being a young woman in the context of wartime London, whilst being really very funny about it. There are some serious moments here, of course, but her sense of humour really shines through. Wyndham is warm and witty, charming and candid, and readers are sure to have so much fun with her highly readable accounts of wartime life.

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‘The Conscientious Objector’s Wife’, edited by Kate Macdonald ****

I came across The Conscientious Objector’s Wife: Letters Between Frank and Lucy Sunderland, 1916-1919 whilst browsing a list of Handheld Press’ publications. The book really caught my eye, and after a quick peruse of my local library’s catalogue, I had found and reserved a copy. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is part of Handheld’s Research collection, and the letters within have been collated and edited by Kate Macdonald, a literary historian, and the company’s director.

Frank and Lucy Sunderland were English pacifists, vegetarians, and ‘fervent supporters of Labour politics and the New Town movement.’ They had moved from London to Letchworth, the first Garden City, to give their three children – Dora, Chrissie, and Morris – a healthier lifestyle. The pair were highly involved in local politics and schemes; in 1917, for instance, Lucy began to run the committee at the town’s Adult School.

In November 1916, the couple were separated for almost three years, when Frank, who refused to be conscripted into the British Army during the First World War, was sentenced to hard labour for being a conscientious objector. He was first incarcerated in Wandsworth Prison in London, before being moved to Bedford. Frank was finally released in April 1919, at which point the letters in this edition stop.

Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, was a town ‘designed for social and environmental harmony’; it was predominantly Quaker, and many were pacifists. Almost all of its inhabitants supported the family, in contrast to the attitudes of their families in London, who viewed Frank’s ‘stance as unpatriotic’. During Frank’s incarceration, Lucy had no option but to support her family financially. She took over Frank’s work in collecting insurance premiums, and also took in sewing, and the odd lodger.

As well as strong contemporary details about what it was like to live in Britain during the First World War, these letters demonstrate ‘how their shared ideology of a socialist pacifism upheld the couple in separation, planning for a better future in a more equal society for all.’ Perhaps one of the saddest parts is the outbreak of scarlet fever which occurred in 1917; although all of their children pulled through, they did have to be hospitalised, and took rather a long time to recuperate. Due to the strict rules regarding how many letters conscientious objectors could receive, Frank did not find out about their illness at the time.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife includes an introduction written by Macdonald. Here, she sets out her aim to ‘reframe’ histories of the First World War, which so often exclude women. She writes about Frank’s belief ‘in a universal brotherhood of men and women, which gave him the strength of purpose to resist incorporation’ into the Army. Macdonald goes on to comment that the Sunderland family ‘lived very familiar lives, making this… a human story of value to us all.’

The letters themselves are heartfelt and, particularly given the circumstances, they tend to be quite moving. On the 9th of November 1916, when Frank has been held in a barracks awaiting trial, Lucy writes: ‘I feel your spirit always with me. It helps me throughout the loneliness of the night. I haven’t time to feel lonely during the day.’ When Frank is sentenced, she sends the following: ‘I really feel quite at peace because I am sure we are taking the right stand. If our thought is too advanced for the present state of civilization we cannot help that, but must be true to ourselves… but all new teaching must have pioneers and its martyrs although we little dreamt in talking about our future that you would be one.’

There is some joviality here, too; on the 11th of November 1916, Frank writes: ‘You might let me have the interpretation of Morris’s letter as I can’t make head nor tail out of it.’ Like Lucy, he can be incredibly tender too. In February 1917, when his initial sentence is increased by two years, Frank writes: ‘… I assure you of my true Love to you and I feel that though we are parted in the flesh, Love leaps all boundaries of flesh and we are still together. Be brave little woman and I’ll try also, and together we shall gather strength to walk through the maze of sorrow and tribulation. I have written just as I feel knowing that you will be able to read my heart.’

Frank and Lucy wrote freely to one another; some of the letters read almost as streams of consciousness. Each one, however brief, is engaging. The couple recorded what was going on around then, as well as their hopes and dreams for a better future, lived together. Lucy does not shy away from writing of the loneliness which she feels, and the money troubles which often plague her.

The Conscientious Objector’s Wife is an accessible collection, which is worthy of so much attention. I was rather saddened when I went to rate it on Goodreads, and saw that I was the only person who had read it. The letters really give one a feel for how fraught things were during this period. The strength of both Sunderlands, and the way in which they took every difficulty in their stride, is inspiring. I also admired the way in which Frank and Lucy’s letters were turned into a family project, with different generations typing and collating everything which they wrote to one another, and the intention to turn the letters into a published book when the opportunity arose.

I feel grateful that I have been able to read these sometimes very private letters between a loving husband and wife. They reveal much about a still relatively little known group of people, who stood up for their pacifist beliefs. The Conscientious Objector’s Wife provides a window onto an important piece of social history, and I can only hope that more readers pick it up in future.

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‘Small Bodies of Water’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

Nina Mingya Powles is an author whose work I have been interested in since reading her excellent essay in At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here). Her first full-length work of non-fiction, Small Bodies of Water, appealed to me on so many levels. Even had I not heard of Powles before, the quotes written by Robert Macfarlane, Amy Liptrot, and Jessica J. Lee on the book’s cover – all non-fiction authors whom I highly admire – would have drawn me to it. Small Bodies of Water won the inaugural Nan Shepherd Prize in 2019, and was published in full in August 2021.

Powles was born in New Zealand, partly grew up in China and the United States, and now lives in London. She has also spent an extensive time in Malaysia, where her grandparents live. As she so aptly writes, ‘Home is many people and places and languages, some separated by oceans.’

Small Bodies of Water is an exploratory memoir, about what home and family mean, and about belonging. The book presents a series of interlinked essays, woven together from ‘personal memories, dreams and nature writing’. The topics which she writes about are many and varied. Powles weaves in her own experiences of swimming around the world with myths and legends, earthquakes, food, wildlife, other literature which has struck her, notions of pain, waves and tidal movements, her difficulties in communicating with her grandparents, music, and Miyazaki movies, amongst many other things.

There are whole sections devoted to swimming, something which I personally love to read about. Focus is placed upon the ‘small bodies of water’ which ‘separate and connect us’ in which Powles has spent time. She learnt to swim close to her grandparents’ home in Borneo, where her mother was born, and where her grandfather studied the island’s freshwater fish for a living. Throughout her life, there have been many more bodies of water, from the ‘wild coastline of New Zealand’ to the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, northwest London.

Throughout, Powles’ descriptions are evocative and expansive. In the first essay, she recalls the act of swimming with her cousin in Malaysia: ‘I hover in a safe corner of the deep end, waiting to see how long I can hold my breath. Looking up through my goggles I see rainforest clouds, a watery rainbow. I can see the undersides of frangipani petals floating on the surface… I straighten my legs and point my toes and launch myself towards the sun.’ I love the way in which she writes about water, and its constant movement. Later, she describes: ‘Underwater everything was different, bathed in holy silence and blue echoes. The slanted windows cast wavering lines a liquid light beneath the surface, across our bodies. We felt the way our limbs moved, lithe and strong and brand new.’ As she grows, she considers the way in which the water was sometimes the only place in which she did not feel self-conscious about her changing body. She also writes that water is something which always makes her feel grounded, no matter where in the world she finds herself: ‘The heat can’t touch me: a girl swimming is a body of water.’

Food is something which also makes her feel at home. Whilst she writes about this in far more detail in her excellent short pamphlet, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, here, she writes about eating and cooking in sensuous language. Food is a way to connect for Powles, and to have something of a communal experience even in a new place where she is alone: ‘In the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road in east London, we – all of us women in our twenties and thirties, all of us slurping pho in the middle of the day – warm our cheeks in the steam that rises from our bowls and coats the windows, shielding us from the gaze of passers-by. We don’t speak to each other, or to anyone else. We wrap scarves around our faces and step out into the melting snow.’

Powles discusses cultural identity with a great deal of insight, and muses about the meaning of belonging from the outset. She asks poignant questions, such as: ‘Where is the place your body is anchored? Which body of water is yours? Is it that I’ve anchored myself in too many places at once, or nowhere at all? The answer hits somewhere between. Over time, springing up from the in-between space, new islands form.’ Later, she tells us: ‘Home is not a place but a collection of things that have fallen or been left behind…’.

She goes on: ‘My markers of home are rooted in plants and weather. Wind that tastes of salt, the tūī’s bright warbling call, the crunch of shells underfoot, a swaying kōwhai tree. As time passes, these pieces of home begin to feel unstable, shifting further away. Long after I’ve moved away from Wellington, after my parents moved out of our house by the sea, after the garden has gone wild, a kōwhai tree grows in a garden in London: some small proof that although my pieces of home are scattered, I will always find my way to them.’

I was thoroughly impressed throughout by the scope of Powles’ prose. She writes in a manner both detailed and poetic, and notices every single thing around her. She explores at length not just what it means to belong, but what it means to be a woman, and to be believed, and to have mixed heritage. Of the latter, she asks: ‘Some like to talk in terms of fractions: one-quarter, one-eighth, one-sixteenth. I can feel all the pieces of myself getting smaller and smaller. How do I carry them all?’

I loved the structure in Small Bodies of Water. Each essay is composed of short, vignette-like sections, which work wonderfully here. Powles adds so many layers to her memoir throughout. She considers what it means to write, and the effects which it has upon her: ‘I think of my own writing and how sometimes, making a poem means making something exist outside of my own brain, my own skin. The poem contains parts of me and I still contain parts of it, but it’s separate from myself, distinct, new.’

Small Bodies of Water sings. Powles has created such a beautiful and thoughtful work of non-fiction, which will stay with me for such a long time. I admired the huge variety of topics which have been included, and the way in which she considers each with such attention. The author has so much to say, and does with astonishing beauty. Small Bodies of Water is tremendous, and I found something to ponder on every page. I cannot wait to read whatever Powles brings out in the future.

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‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ by Taran N. Khan ****

I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating.  Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away.  First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.

49114654._sx318_-1On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city].  Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker.’  As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers.  She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.

In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’  Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’.  Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically.  The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.

In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments.  I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back.  I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street.  I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates…  Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’  She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud…  It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain.  Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’

Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India.  The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned.  Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006…  the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’

Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar.  To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town…  These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost.  To be lost is a way to see a place afresh…  To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’  I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places.  Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency.  She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.

An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city.  She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well.  I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless.  I wandered through myths and memories…’.

Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces.  Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of.  Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war.  Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction.  She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.

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‘Maman, What Are We Called Now?’ by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar *****

Persephone Books are a real treat for me. I love that moment when I open one of their beautiful dove grey covers for the first time, and always take a moment to admire the undoubtedly beautiful endpapers, before embarking on a story which I’m always certain I will enjoy. I was lucky enough to be able to reserve a copy of Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar’s Maman, What Are We Called Now? from my local library, as it’s a copy I’ve had difficulty picking up elsewhere.

Maman, What Are We Called Now? collects together a short journal and articles written by Paris resident, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar, during the Second World War, and directly afterwards. First published in its original French in 1957, and in English in this translation by Francine Yorke in 2015, the book is the 115th title on the Persephone list. It also includes a long, and highly informative preface written by biographer Caroline Moorehead, in which she provides a lot of information about both their families, and their backgrounds. I really appreciated both the specific context, and the personal details which she gives; they certainly add to the whole.

Mesnil-Amar’s original journal was written between July and August 1944, and begun on the day she learnt that her husband was missing. Moorehead contextualises this well, commenting: ‘In the last frenzied weeks of the German occupation of Paris her husband André had disappeared. She wanted to record her thoughts, her fears, her desperate hopes, her memories, along with a description of Paris itself… When she abandoned her diary, five weeks later, Paris was free and André, miraculously, was alive.’

Both Jacqueline and André were Jewish, but were ‘totally assimilated’, seeing themselves as French citizens first, and Jewish second. André joined the Jewish resistance, which had begun in Warsaw in 1942. After being tricked by the Gestapo, he was sent to Auschwitz on the last deportation train, on the 17th of August 1944. Astonishingly, he managed to escape from the moving train, and walked the 50 kilometres back to Paris. After being reunited with his wife and young daughter Sylvie, he and Jacqueline helped to set up a vital network of information for deported Jews, helping them to locate their families after the Holocaust.

Throughout Mesnil-Amar’s heartrending journal, the reader is made party to her extreme anxiety, uncertainty, and grief. On the 25th of July, just a week after André’s disappearance, Mesnil-Amar writes: ‘I was straining to hear the slightest sound, longing for the familiar rapid footsteps outside the door, bur they never came. A thousand times I thought I’d heard one of the sounds that are so much a part of the man I love – the jangle of his keys, the click of the door handle, his little smoker’s cough, the rustle of a newspaper – and the sound of his cheerful voice calling out his pet name for me from the other end of the flat. But nothing. Complete silence. Always the same all-enveloping silence we endured after the others were arrested.’ On the same day, she writes of the clash of information which she has been given by others: ‘Everything just adds to the confusion and the horror, it’s all black and shadowy… I will sell my rings, I will sell my soul, I will sell my life, but I can’t believe even that would be enough.’

Throughout the journal portion of Maman, What Are We Called Now?, Mesnil-Amar lays her panic and vulnerability bare. She writes briefly of members of her family, all of whom are in hiding across the city. She writes, sometimes at length, of the incredibly brave and selfless people around her, and how they have provided herself and Sylvie with help, and with hope. She addresses sections of her journal directly to André, and these are fervent and sincere.

Something which she comes to realise is the disconnect which her husband’s disappearance creates. On the 26th of July, Mesnil-Amar reflects: ‘This endless walk took me through every part of Paris, so many different cities, each one a part of me, my avenues, my streets, the loveliest and the ugliest, the oldest and the newest, and I walked with my eyes half-closed, all of a sudden a stranger in my own city, separated from it by my grief and yet forever bound to it.’ She questions her faith, wondering whether she does believe in God: ‘Not every day, alas. And especially not every night… I no longer know who or what to hold on to, what god, what human face, which of the values that used to give meaning to my life.’

Under the rather lovely pen name of Delphine, Jacqueline contributed articles, theatre reviews, and ‘light-hearted sketches of society life’ to various magazines. After the war, the tone and topics of her writing, unsurprisingly, shifted. Moorehead notes that in these later articles, ‘the light-hearted Delphine of the pre-war years had been replaced by a more serious, sadder figure.’ One can notice a shift in tone even between the journal and the articles written afterwards; there is a gaping sadness, and a despair which is almost palpable. Both her prose and the translation are fluid and beautiful, and throughout, Jacqueline is astute and highly observant of everything around her. She questions herself relentlessly about why people were resigned to standing by and watching, as the whole of Europe was decimated, and much of its Jewish population was murdered before their very eyes.

I always feel incredibly grateful when I come to read a diary, particularly one as illuminating as Mesnil-Amar’s. For me, they provide, by far, the best insight into the author’s present. They record details which may otherwise be lost to the annals of history, or perhaps might not be picked up by future historians. Maman, What Are We Called Now? – something which Mesnil-Amar’s daughter asked her, picking up as she did on the grip of Nazi Germany, and the deportation of friends – is such an important document, and one which is an absolute privilege to read.

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‘Paris’ by Julian Green ****

I received a Waterstone’s voucher for my birthday – surely the best kind of present there is? – and set about spending it immediately. When browsing in my local branch, a thin, pale green spine caught my eye, and before I knew it, I had added Julian Green’s Paris to the rather large stack of books which I was already balancing in my arms. Part of the reason that I picked it up was my love for Penguin Classics, but mostly it was due to the fact that a holiday in France – one of my favourite countries, and one in which I have been lucky enough to spend a large span of time in my life so far – sadly looks very much off the cards in 2021.

It is described in its blurb as an ‘extraordinary, lyrical love letter… taking the reader on an imaginative journey around its secret stairways, courtyards, alleys and hidden places.’ Further, the blurb declares, it is ‘a meditation on getting lost and wasting time, and on what it truly means to love a city.’ I was further intrigued when I read that the Observer calls Paris ‘the most bizarre and delicious of travel books’. Sold, to the girl with the voucher.

Julian Green was born in Paris in 1900, to American parents, and spent the majority of his life in the city. He was a prolific author whom I had never read before, publishing over sixty-five books in France, and a further five in the USA. He wrote mainly in French; indeed, Paris was originally penned in this Romantic language. The Penguin edition is interestingly a bilingual one, the first of the kind which I have read to date. I am just about proficient enough in French to read Green’s original text, but I appreciated being able to compare and contrast his own turns of phrase with those in the translation by J.A. Underwood.

Green opens his travelogue in rather a charming manner: ‘I have often dreamed of writing a book about Paris that would be like one of those long, aimless strolls on which you find none of the things you are looking for but many that you were not looking for.’ He goes on to explain why he wished to look at the more hidden corners of the city, commenting, perhaps a little controversially: ‘Possibly from having looked at them too much, I can no longer see the architectural glories of Paris with quite the open mind required… I make no secret of the fact that it is the old buildings that I prefer, and yet I should be bored to tears if I had to write a page about the Hôtel des Invalides… I should be similarly struck dumb by Notre-Dame… I prefer to remain silent; for me, Notre-Dame is simply Notre-Dame, full stop.’

When Green was forced to be away from his beloved city during the war years, the thought of his home sustained him, holding a great deal of comfort. He reflects: ‘Thinking about the capital all the time, I rebuilt it inside myself. I replaced its physical presence with something else, something supernatural…’. When he returns to Paris, one of the first things which he does is to climb the dome of the Sacre-Coeur: ‘It was as if the whole city hit me in the chest… Winter was drawing to a close; the dazzling March light already consumed everything, and as far as the eye could see there was Paris, wearing, like a cloak that kept slipping from its shoulders, the shadow of the great clouds that the wind was chasing across the breadth of the sky.’ He goes on to say: ‘Certainly the city’s smile is reserved for those who draw near and loaf in its streets; to them it speaks a familiar, reassuring language. The soul of Paris, however, can be apprehended fully from afar and from above, and it is in the silence of the sky that you hear the great and moving cry of pride and faith it upraises to the clouds.’

Green’s short chapters, which are more like a series of essays than anything, take us on a sweeping tour around the city. He speaks of Paris’ history at times, and writes at length about his favourite places to peruse. He is essentially a flâneur; on the Rue de Passy, for instance, he captures the following: ‘… the shoeshop where Lina, my nanny, used to buy those slippers with the sky-blue pompoms, and the stationer’s where flies basked in the sun on the covers of the exercise books, and the grim Nicolas shop, the wine merchant’s, and Mr Beaudichon’s pharmacy (he had such a beautiful beard), and the great gold letters high up on a balcony, proclaiming to all and sundry that a dental surgeon lived here… and the heavenly fragrance of the first sprays of lilac that the florist with the red hands kept in the shade beneath the archway of number 93…’.

Paris is a really beautiful, musing piece on what it means to be a Parisian. According to Green, ‘Every walk I have ever taken along its streets has seemed to create a fresh link, invisible yet tenacious, binding me to its very stones. I used to wonder as a child how the mere name of Paris could denote so many different things, so many streets and squares, so many gardens, houses, roofs, chimneys, and above it all the shifting, insubstantial sky that crowns our city…’. He goes on to tell us: ‘There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me.’

Paris is not merely a romantic musing on the city. Green is remarkably realist in places about aspects of the city’s history, or areas which were perhaps less salubrious than others as he wandered. He comments that in his Paris, ‘Ceaselessly, day and night, poverty and sickness prowl the dreary Montmartre streets that in the tourist’s eyes glitter like a paradise of carefree pleasure…’. He captures such a great deal throughout, often in just one or two sentences which are loaded with detail. He writes, for instance: ‘If the night is a clear one, and if the shadows are sharp and the moonlight good and white, there comes a moment when the best-informed stroller, as for all of the mystery of his city is concerned, stops and stars in silence. Paris, as I have said, is loath to surrender itself to people who are in a hurry; it belongs to the dreamers, to those capable of amusing themselves in its streets without regard to time… consequently their reward is to see what others will never see.’

At just 119 pages, Green captures such a great deal in Paris. It was a delight to peruse the photographs included on some of the pages, all of which were taken by Green himself. He was an excellent chronicler of a city which holds such a dear place in my heart, and which I hope to return to as soon as I can. I found Paris to be a very thoughtful and evocative account of what it means to make one’s home in a single place, and to know it almost as well as one knows oneself. What a wonder, and what a privilege, to travel its streets with one who knew it so well.

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One From the Archive: ‘What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell’, edited by Suzanne Marrs *****

First published in 2016.

What There Is To Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell is one of my most anticipated books – well, ever.  Maxwell is one of my favourite writers (and it pains me that he is so little known), and I very much admire Welty.  Regardless, I knew little about them as individuals, so when I spotted this volume, I immediately put it at the top of my birthday list. 97805477503231

Marrs’ introduction is wonderful.  She writes with such passion, and compassion, for her subjects.  From the very beginning, I knew that I would have loved to meet both of those whom Marrs clearly deeply admires.  Welty was an incredibly sassy, shrewd woman; of Jane Austen’s house, she wrote that it ‘looks big, but is really small.  The opposite of her novels.’  Bill, who struck up a wondrous friendship with her, was an incredibly humble, humane man, filled with a myriad of thoughts, and devoted to all of those around him.

It goes without saying that both are incredible writers.  Learning about the process of their craft was fascinating enough, but getting to know the pair as individuals was far more rewarding.  That rare thing is so evident here; that enduring friendship, built upon mutual respect, which was all the more cherished as the two lived far from one another (Maxwell in New York, and Welty in Mississippi).  They could see one another only at long intervals, but in some ways, both found this beneficial; the therapeutic motion of penning (semi-) regular letters to one another lasted for decades, and much was learnt about the other in consequence.

What There Is To Say We Have Said is a stunning read, and I was a little sad when I came to its end.  Throughout, one is nudged to remember just how important communication is (and just how much the majority of us in the modern world almost instantaneous communication for granted), and how beautiful the art of letter writing.  There is not a single dull sentence in this 450-page long volume, and if it had been twice as long, I would have been thrilled.

I could type out quotes at length here, but I shall leave you, dear reader, with the ones which really touched me:
– Maxwell to Welty: ‘There are enough similarities in our two childhoods to make me feel […] that they grew up on a tandem bicycle.’
– Maxwell to Welty, on the publication of one of her works: ‘But I wanted to write to you now, because when a book first comes out, it is really like a party, and when I am invited to a party, I like to come early.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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‘The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia’ by Laura Miller *****

I have never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre, but I could not get enough of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia when I was a child. I remember, on a couple of occasions, finishing the last paperback in the series – a gorgeous boxed edition which my mother was given when she was a child, and passed on to me – and going right back to the beginning. I have read the series in adulthood, and found it almost as magical.

I was therefore very keen to read Laura Miller’s memoir, The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which charts her own experiences of reading the Chronicles, both in childhood and adulthood. She writes: ‘My relationship to Narnia would turn out to be as heady as any love affair, a story of enchantment, betrayal, estrangement, and reunion.’ Jonathan Lethem deems Miller’s book a ‘superb long essay’, ‘conversational, embracing and casually erudite’, and Karen Joy Fowler calls it ‘smart, meticulous, and altogether delightful’.

The Magician’s Book chronicles – pardon the pun – Miller’s ‘long, tumultuous relationship’ with C.S. Lewis’ books. Just as I did as a young teenager, Miller discovered the wealth of Christian material which suffused the books; these seem obvious to me as an older reader, but as a child, they went right over my head. Miller’s experience from this point veered in a different direction to mine; I was still keen to submerge myself within the books, but the ‘Christian themes left [Miller] feeling betrayed and alienated from the stories she had come to know and trust.’

As an adult, Miller – who was working as a literary critic at the time – came to the stories from a different perspective. She decided to investigate the Chronicles, alongside Lewis’ life, ‘to see what mysteries Narnia holds for adult eyes’. She was thankfully enraptured by the stories once more, and was able to recapture some of the childhood love which she felt for them. She muses at length upon the Christian symbolism in the novels, explaining why she initially felt let down by this element, and how cleverly Lewis drew parallels between the two. She examines, too, the role of women and race within the novels, and the lack of distinct politics in Narnia, amongst so many other elements.

I loved the mixing of Miller’s own memoir alongside a quite detailed biography of C.S. Lewis himself. She visits the places in which he lived, in both England and Ireland, and travels to the specific Irish landscapes which inspired portions of the books. Miller found Lewis to be a man ‘who stands in stark contrast to his whimsical creation’. In her research, she was particularly interested in his all-engulfing friendship with Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as the influence which he has had upon a slew of modern writers, including Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Franzen. Miller gives a fantastic commentary regarding mythology and Medieval romance, and its influences on both Lewis and Tolkien.

The Magician’s Book opens with a reflection of Miller’s childhood, when the greatest love which she felt was for the Narnia stories. She writes in especially touching prose here, telling us: ‘I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again.’ Narnia showed the young Laura how she ‘could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.’

Miller writes beautifully throughout about Narnia and its magic. She also details how formative reading the Chronicles were, and how they provided a sort of moral and educational primer for its child readers. She says, for instance: ‘To me, the best children’s books gave their child characters (and by extension, myself) the chance to be taken seriously. In Narnia, the boundary between childhood and adulthood – a vast tundra of tedious years – could be elided. The Pevensies not only get to topple the White Witch, fight in battles, participate in an earthshaking mystical event, and be crowned kings and queens; they do it all without having to grow up. Yet they become more than children, too. Above all, their decisions have moral gravity. In contrast to how most children experience their role in an adult world, what the child characters in these stories do, for better or worse, really matters…’.

I found The Magician’s Book fascinating. Miller offers a thorough, even intricate, work of literary criticism. I left with a renewed love for the Narnia books myself, as well as a list of a few other lists and authors to explore – something which I greatly appreciate. The Magician’s Book is, overall, a fantastic melding of a variety of genres and interests, and of themes and elements found within a children’s series which contains an awful lot of depth.

As Miller puts it so wonderfully herself, Narnia ‘mixed up classical and Northern mythologies, canonical fairy tales and slangy modern schoolchildren, myth and satire, all with such cheerful indiscrimination.’ This is a wonderful piece of literary criticism, and I can only hope that every fan of Narnia will have the chance to pick it up.